A steep learning ark
Steve Carrell is bewildered by his sudden rise to A-list status, he tells Miles Fielder
It’s a powerful endorsement of the belly laugh-inducing abilities of American comedian Steve Carrell and incontrovertible evidence of his rapid rise to star status on the big screen that just four years after making his first film appearance of note, in the 2003 God-complex comedy Bruce Almighty, Carrell is taking over the lead role from $25m-a-picture superstar Jim Carrey in the sequel, Evan Almighty. The 44-year-old, who apparently attended the premiere of the first film fully expecting to find his scenes dumped on the cutting room floor, can’t quite believe the speed with which he has ascended to the lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster.
“When Tom [Shadyac, the director] came to me to talk about a sequel to Bruce Almighty, I truly thought that he meant, ‘We are doing a sequel with Jim Carrey and we want you to reprise your role as the same character’,” says Carrell. “And then he said, ‘We’re actually thinking about you as the lead character’.”
That said, Carrell, who is as self-effacing on screen as he is off it, qualifies his promotion by adding: “Jim gets all the power of God and I get pooped on by birds. He gets to lasso the moon for Jennifer Aniston and I get to hang out in a sweaty robe for three months.”
In the original film, Carrey’s terminally frustrated television anchorman Bruce Nolan bad-mouths God one time too many, prompting his almightiness (played with appropriate gravitas by Morgan Freeman) to bequeath the miserable mortal with all his power for one day, so teaching him that being the creator of the universe isn’t as easy as one might think. In the sequel, Carrell’s nerdy but ambitious politician Evan Baxter, who gets hung out to dry on air by omnipotent Bruce in the previous instalment, is off to Washington to make his name when God intervenes in the lives of mortal men once again and charges the would-be power player with overseeing the construction of an ark, much like Noah did the last time climate change was threatening the continuation of life on earth.
The central idea of the first film is carried over to the sequel, which sports what British, if not American, cinema-goers might think a marvellous punning title: God gives an everyday Joe (or Bruce, or Evan) a crash course in humility, and the hard lesson taught is played out with a series of knockabout set-pieces that give the CGI boffins in California plenty to do. But the difference between Carrey’s and Carrell’s brands of humour gives the new film a comic emphasis that keeps it distinct from its predecessor. Where Carrey is volatile with his manic mugging, Carrell is restrained with his patented self-effacement. Carrey’s comedy is essentially slapstick, whereas Carrell’s is situat i o n a l . So wh e re Bruce did unto others, Evan has it done unto him.
Maintaining – as he does to fine comic effect on screen – a mild-mannered expression, Carrell outlines an example: “There was a scene where these two baboons had to hand me lemonade when I was building the ark, and one of them spilt the lemonade, so I improvised and said something like, ‘Hey, man, what are you doing?’ The baboon went crazy. He thought I was being aggressive and he got mad and bared his teeth. I continued with the scene and later the animal trainer came up to me and said, ‘Look, don’t do that – don’t improvise with the baboons and don’t look them in the eye!’ And I thought well, maybe he should have told me that before I started the take!”
What makes Evan Baxter funny, Carrell continues, is “he starts off as kind of a blowhard [loudmouth]. He has a ripe ego and thinks very highly of himself. As a congressman, his campaign slogan is “change the world”. But to him that’s just a slogan. And yet he gets to learn what that statement really means, and that’s where the interplay with God comes in. It’s funny to watch someone be reduced to the essence of who they are and then build their way back and fight. And it is a struggle. Evan’s gone to Washington to become a congressman, but finds himself hanging off the side of an ark with thousands of animals aboard. So it’s more of a situational comedy, rather than laughing at how goofy he is or whether he says something wacky.”
Elsewhere, Carrell has said he
thinks a character in a comedy should not know they’re in a comedy, and that he doesn’t think of himself as funny either. It’s exactly that stringent effort to not to be funny that makes Carrell frequently hilarious, and it’s this which has, no doubt, made him one of the most popular comic actors working today. He was the natural choice to play the David Brent part in the American version of The Office, which earned him a Golden Globe award and for which he has just been signed up for another 30 episodes.
Having earned his stripes doing improv in Chicago, Carrell graduated to television, joining Jon Stewart on the poker-faced news satire The Daily Show. From there, and before David Brent’s American cousin came calling, Carrell made Bruce Almighty and a clutch of “fratpack” comedies (Anchorman, Bewitched). He eventually struck gold with the double whammy of the self-explanatorily titled The 40-YearOld Virgin, which earned a whopping $175m worldwide, and Little Miss Sunshine, which enjoyed equivalent critical praise and, rarely for a comedy, was recognised at last year’s Oscars.
When Carrell made The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005, he received a relatively tiny salary of $500,000 for his efforts, which involved co-writing the script and enduring a CGI-free, skin-ripping chest waxing. Two years later he’s being paid $5m (£2.5m) to put on a sweaty robe, s a n d a ls an d f a ls e b e a rd fo r Eva n Almighty, and quite rightly he finds the whole business as improbable as a congressman being asked to build an ark.
“It’s so strange,” he says. “I sometimes wonder how I got invited to this party. The past two years have been crazy and something that I would never have anticipated. I went to the All-Star basketball game in Las Vegas recently, and I was sitting there with Cameron Diaz and Beyonce and all these other famous people. I looked at the ticket price. It was $5000. I can’t wrap my head around that. I have no idea where my pathetic nature comes from, but I know if I thought about it for too long I would get depressed.”
God forbid he does that.
In Evan Almighty, Steve Carrell plays a politician charged by God with building a latter-day Noah’s ark to keep his furry crew high and dry